OPINION

Plaka is all tagged out by graffiti

It’s becoming hard to find a wall anywhere in Plaka that hasn’t been painted, drawn or sprayed on. In fact, not even archaeological sites, the facades of monuments or the walls of neoclassical mansions are safe. The beautiful promenade around the Roman Agora is at the same time a veritable canvas, while the small square on the site of a former mosque that evolved from the unification of the city center’s archaeological sites with a pedestrian strip is a living monument to the disastrous effect of graffiti. The spray paint has seeped into the stones; it is shocking to see the total transformation of an otherwise exemplary public space. You will even find tags (graffiti artists’ signatures) inside the confines of Hadrian’s Library. But how did the situation get to this point? Unfortunately, Plaka is an easy target and it comes as little surprise that the worst-affected area is that around the Roman Agora. This is where most of the Ministry of Culture’s services are located, and the buildings, beautiful neoclassical edifices belonging to the state, are always empty by afternoon, with no one left to keep a watchful eye. This large collection of public buildings means that parts of the neighborhood are completely deserted at night – and at the mercy of scrawlers. Even when the ministry does go ahead with the painstaking task of cleaning the graffiti up, it is just a matter of days before it returns. It seems that the large unadorned walls of big neoclassical buildings represent a great temptation for Athens’s community of graffiti makers. Some may see Plaka as a symbol, a target for their sociopolitical anxieties. This is where many wealthy Athenians live and, for the artists, their spray paint may be a way of lashing out against the easy-living bourgeoisie. The debate over whether graffiti is art or mere vandalism is hard enough to navigate, but in Plaka it takes on a different dimension, because Plaka is the only complete surviving neighborhood in the capital with its own architectural identity, and it was also the heart of ancient Athens. If Athens were graced with many such neighborhoods, then maybe we could afford the lackadaisical attitude that seems to prevail today. However, residents are beginning to take matters into their own hands. One Plaka residents’ association has fired up its campaign against graffiti and is mustering widespread support through Facebook. And it looks like things are beginning to move, as they did in the Italian capital, where residents also seized the initiative with the movement «Retake Rome,» and received international coverage through an article in TIME Magazine in November. Among the proactive events the group – which was founded in 2009 by an American lawyer – carries out are cleanups of graffiti-splattered sites. According to the article, Rome tops the list of European capitals with a graffiti problem, though unlike Greece the problem is less pronounced in the historical center and tends to affect outlying areas more seriously. Other cities have different approaches to the graffiti issue. In France, diverse citizens’ groups take it on themselves to clean up graffiti; in the United Kingdom, the previous Labour government passed legislation under the Antisocial Behavior Act in 2003 which foresaw a campaign titled «Keep Britain Tidy,» and which encouraged a zero-tolerance attitude toward vandalism and the defacement of public property. Britain handed its first conviction against graffiti artists in 2008 when it charged nine members of a crew called DPM with 1 million pounds’ worth of property damage. Five members of the crew received sentences of between 18 months and two years. The case revived the debate between those who see graffiti as an art form and those who condemn it flat out. In Hungary, the problem was brought under control by a group calling itself «I Love Bucharest,» which secured the cooperation of the police, who now conduct patrols on the lookout for graffiti makers. Over in the United States, graffiti has been an issue since the 1980s and this was symbolized most poignantly by the graffiti-covered cars of the New York subway. The Metropolitan Transport Authority eventually decided to dig deep into its pockets and replace the entire fleet with a brand-new one in 1989. Graffiti in New York, however, is far from dead. It simply moved out into the streets of the city, challenging authorities anew.